I’d never heard of Christina Robertson before I toured the castles and palaces of St. Petersburg and saw her portraits of women dressed in resplendent finery and cascading ball gowns. Her pictures stood apart from the other portraits. There was nothing timid or withholding about them but they had a kind of delicate sensibility that is hard to describe. I don’t want to call it feminine, but her paintings convey the feeling that the artist understood her subjects a little bit better than a male painter might. Or maybe I’m totally wrong and just intrigued by the idea that a woman born in Scotland, who was a wife and a mother could end up as a court painter in Russia in the 19th Century.
Roberson was born in Scotland and trained by an uncle. She quickly became a popular portrait and miniature painter, and was the first woman invited to join the Scottish Royal Academy of Art in 1824. Her husband with whom she had eight children was also an artist, but it appears that her career took her to Paris by the 1830’s where she had a number of Russian clients. She decided to pursue her fortunes in Russia and traveled to St. Petersburg around 1837-38. She made the journey alone which was highly unusual. Travel was extremely difficult in those days. Imagine plodding along forever on muddy roads in a coach that pitched and jerked and that had nothing to absorb the shocks of the highway on your rear end. If part of the journey took place on a ship, you had to deal with rough accommodations and were hostage to the unpredictable whims of the weather.
After a successful exhibition in 1839, she received a commission to paint the portraits of Empress Alexandra and Tsar Nicolas, I. Other commissions followed.
In 1841, she returned to her family and studio in England but left them again in 1849 for Russia. She continued to be a popular court painter in St.Petersburg and received many more commissions. She died in St. Petersburg in 1854. Some interesting questions remain: Why did she travel and leave her family behind as she did? Was it financial necessity or to find artistic freedom? And why don’t we know more about her? She died in Russia after the start of the Crimean War and it’s possible that her reputation suffered because of that association.
You can see most of her work at the Hermitage Museum. Click here for some examples.